Volume 28, Number 4, Winter 2006

Thinking Ahead: ALA Presenters Consider the Future of Libraries

By R. Greg Carlson, Frances T. Bourne Jacaranda Public Library, Venice, Florida, and Laurie Putnam, San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science, San Jose, California

Librarians are awakening to the value of futuring, a practice so habitual in our personal lives that it has escaped close examination as a professional tool. We make assumptions and create expectations about future events every day. Anglers, for example, are foolish to ignore tidal patterns, recent fishing reports, and weather forecasts before planning a trip on the water. While fishermen cannot predict with certainty if they will catch their limit tomorrow, less so next month, they rely on recognized patterns and cause-effect relationships to inform decisions about when and where to find the bite.

Likewise, librarians can gain a competitive edge and participate in shaping a preferred future when they adopt a systematic approach to "what might happen." Many examples of futuring theory and practice emerged at the 2006 American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans. This report serves both to illuminate futuring methodologies and demonstrate their growing acceptance. Despite the other-worldly associations, futuring is based on sound principles and science. Futuring is also more accessible than we might imagine.

Introducing the Future

What is futuring? The term may conjure up images of fantasy novels and fortune tellers with creative predictions of questionable value. Developing foresight does engage the creative mind, but futuring isn't prediction. Instead, the practice involves methodical, informed forecasting, the generation of alternative possibilities, and the push to move toward the most desirable of those alternatives.

At ALA, definitions and methods of future studies were introduced at the ASCLA-sponsored panel, "Scanning the Future@Your Library," moderated by R. Greg Carlson, manager of the Jacaranda Public Library in Venice, Florida. Drawing a definition from Edward Cornish, founder of the World Future Society and author of Futuring: The Exploration of the Future, Carlson explained futures research as "the systematic exploration of what might happen, so people can decide what they want to make happen." Carlson reviewed the methods of futuring, such as scenario building and trend analysis, and the elements futurists consider, such as wildcard events.

Panel members George Needham, OCLC's member services vice president, and Joan Frye Williams, library and information technology consultant, brought those futuring concepts home to libraries. Needham and Williams encouraged us to be aware of the kinds of trends identified in the 2003 OCLC Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition, and to consider how changes in services, tools, and users are affecting the library's place in the information world. The major trends: a shift away from intermediated service and toward self-service, the disaggregation of information from complete, vendor-produced books and journals toward the release of "the least publishable unit," and increased collaboration, driven by social software that enables people, technologies, and economies to connect and share information more easily. Users are becoming "hunter-gatherers" who seek and find information from many different sources.

Envisioning Tomorrow

It's all about seeing the world from a wider perspective. Just as librarians can help put information into a larger context, futurists can help put libraries into a larger context.

At OCLC's symposium, "Preserving Library Core Value and Envisioning the Future," another set of experts helped put libraries into perspective and demystify the process of futures research. How is futuring different from the strategic planning we already do? The efforts are complementary, but different. Strategic planning starts from the present, driving specific, incremental change over, typically, a five-year span. Futuring begins with a clean slate, considering the broader spectrum of factors and events that can influence long-term, transformational change. Futurists may look ahead seven, ten, twenty years, or even further. Panelist Wendy Schultz, director of Infinite Futures, suggested that we can draw on futuring techniques as we do our strategic planning by extending the time frame, pulling in larger trends, and playing out different scenarios. When we begin to incorporate futuring methods and ideas, the strategic planning process can become more creative and robust.

Each of the three panelists gave an example of how we can apply future studies to the library world. Derek Woodgate, president of the Futures Lab looked at one of the traditional holdings of the library, the book, and explored how the book might evolve as a medium over the next seven to ten years. At the Futures Lab, Woodgate's team considered the conditions, trends, and connections that could influence today's book—from trends in collaborative authoring to the convergence of entertainment and information media—and envisioned a future "book" that would be experienced rather than read. The imagined future book evolved from bound paper into an interactive, immersive, multisensory experience.

Turning from the medium to the user, Schultz looked at how library users and literacy might evolve over the next twenty years. Who are the library users of the future and what will they be like? The library users of 2026 will be digital natives who grew up with immersive, collaborative media in a world of rapid and continuous change. "What happens when an entire generation grows up in layered, multidimensional, multidirectional information environments?" asked Schultz. "What we're talking about is the end of linear thinking and the rise of 'geodesic,' point-to-multipoint thinking. There will still be literacy, but people may be approaching questions and data organization in a vastly different way."

That means librarians must keep looking ahead. Stacey Aldrich, assistant director of the Omaha Public Library System, talked about immediate ways library organizations can apply future-oriented thinking. Libraries, for example, can identify "scouts," people who are naturally curious, to watch for emerging trends and opportunities. Organizations can learn from these explorers and take advantage of their insights by encouraging them to keep their eyes open and, when they see a new technology or trend, to ask three big questions: What is it? What does it mean? How can libraries adapt, innovate, or create services around the concept?

At OCLC's follow-on scenario-building workshop, participants had a chance to try answering some of those questions.

Scenario Building

In creating scenarios, we can look at current trends and conditions that might influence what happens in the future, then imagine how the world might be different in ten, twenty, or thirty years. What scenarios are possible? Which of those are probable? Which are desirable? By defining alternative scenarios, we can choose the most desirable—and identify what we can do now to help make the desirable more probable.

At OCLC's workshop, Schultz and Aldrich led participants in a scenario-building exercise. Small groups each took three trends from the social, technological, economic, environmental, or political landscapes; studied the implications and interconnections of their trends; then imagined how the world might look to libraries in twenty to thirty years if those trends played out. Were the scenarios truly plausible? "Effective scenarios provoke ideas," said Schultz. "It's about exploration, not prediction. We don't have just one future, we have an array of alternative possible futures and they emerge from how different trends and emerging issues of change interact. There's an immense space in which we can innovate."

Trend Spotting

While we all recognize the value of trends as futures indicators, we sometimes neglect to appreciate their causes and context. Futuring disciplines us to approach trends analytically, to study them as part of a system. Chris Anderson's session on the "Long Tail"—the culture/commerce phenomenon of niche markets driven by broadband connectivity, abundant digital inventories, and "crowdsourcing"—offered an excellent example of how graphing data can inform meaningful forecasts.

The Wired magazine editor used an X/Y table with number of downloads on the vertical axis and track rank on the horizontal axis to graph Rhapsody streaming music service's monthly server activity. The resulting "power curve" gave visual life to the long tail of niche products whose cumulative sales rivaled revenues from the hits. Graphing transactions from other online entertainment merchants resulted in similar long tail curves.

Plotting data sets and monitoring changes over time provides a glimpse of where a trend may be at points in the future—if left in a vacuum. Further identifying drivers, like increasing access to broadband technologies, help us see interconnections with other dynamic forces that must factor into trend projections. Anderson's case for continued growth in the long tail of online commerce was compelling thanks to robust statistics charted over time and consideration of key forces that impact our economic system.

The long tail reflects a growing sense that the collective can function as an authority. Harnessing customer experience as a filter or finding aid is a trait of most successful long tail online ventures. One can imagine future generations of library catalogs incorporating Amazon-style customer ratings and recommendations to supplement bibliographic searches. The objective behind interlibrary loan is consistent with the long tail even though the product remains atoms rather than bytes. Perhaps future resource sharing will follow a "carbon credits" model where regional library consortia broker between ILL creditors and debtors.

Emergent media and entertainment business models carry implications for library services. As customers express their desire for speed, specificity, and granularity in information services, libraries must plan and respond accordingly. Futuring holds promise as an engine for strategic thinking and nimble execution.


One reason to make informed forecasts rather than future predictions based on trends, however well researched, is the intervention of wildcards.

Wildcard events are the improbable surprises that upset our perspective on the future. From stock market crashes to cancer cures, wildcards challenge our notions of what we think will or might happen. Prof. William Rothwell of Pennsylvania State University addressed succession and replacement planning in the ASCLA President's Program, "Retirement Exodus: Are You and Your Library Organizations Ready?" He demonstrated how a replacement strategy manages risk through the following historical wildcard.

In discussing the impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks on World Trade Center corporate offices, Rothwell noted that seventy-two vice presidents perished. Businesses that had considered and planned for scenarios involving a sudden leadership vacuum promptly replaced key people and maintained operational continuity. The example also highlighted the ripple effect of wildcards. Firms caught unprepared were vulnerable to compounding threats from market share losses, employee defections and layoffs, stock devaluation, etc.

Benefits accrue to libraries that consider wildcards in futuring explorations. The process unlocks creativity and counters investments in the status quo. Wildcard thinking can help to anticipate out of the blue events through effective information gathering and detecting indicators. As is the case with futuring in general, identifying and planning for wildcards reduces uncertainty and fosters a sense of urgency. Foresight empowers us to take positive steps toward our preferred future.

Beyond Current Awareness

For libraries, current awareness isn't enough; we need future awareness. As Stacey Aldrich said in the OCLC symposium, "We need people who are continuously looking at the trends, the things that are uncertain, the discontinuities, the wildcards, the critical events that might impact our strategic directions and goals." With that broader awareness, "we can modify what we're doing and keep going down the right path."